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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/The New School occupation and the direction of student politics: an interview with Atlee McFellin

The New School occupation and the direction of student politics: an interview with Atlee McFellin

Pam C. Nogales C.

Platypus Review 10 | February 2009


The occupation of the New School Graduate Faculty building on 65 5th Ave. began in the late evening on December 17, 2008 and lasted over thirty hours. In the build-up to the action, differences arose respecting the aims and potential effectiveness of an occupation.

Against both a negotiating committee and concrete demands, a group calling itself the "Autonomous Faction of Non-cooperation Against the Division of Labor," pushed to extend the occupation. On the other side, leaders of the Radical Student Union, such as Atlee McFellin, originally opposed the occupation on the basis that it was uncoordinated,ill-considered, and, therefore, likely to fail. Despite these reservations, in the end RSU members did participate in the occupation in conjuction with the Autonomous Faction and other student groups.

Although the media coverage of the New School occupation portrayed it as a victory for the students, most of the demands have yet to be met. Not only is McFellin's primary demand for the establishment of a "Socially Responsible Committee" yet to be approved, but many of the administration's concessions have not yet been implemented. The action's long-term significance, however, may be more in the influence it exerts over the direction of student politics. Both student groups and activist networks payed closed attention to the occupation and expressed admiration for it. In the coming months we are likely to see further ramifications of the New School occupation.


This interview which has been edited for publication was conducted on January 15, 2009. It is the first in a series of critical interrogations intending to clarify the politics that propel such activities as the New School occupation and the overall direction of the student movement today.

Pam Nogales: What is your relationship to the new Students for a Democratic Society?

Atlee McFellin: We are still part of SDS, but I don't know for how much longer. We call ourselves the Radical Student Union (RSU). We are also members of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), and the Student Environmental Action Coalition. There may be other groups that we are affiliated with, like the Responsible Endowments Coalition, but I do not think we are officially part of any others.

PN: Briefly walk me through the brainstorming stage of the New School occupation into the first night in the building.

AM: It started when the New School faculty gave both Robert Millard, treasurer of the board of trustees, and Bob Kerrey, president of the university, their vote of no-confidence. We organized a demonstration outside and inside of the same building as the board of trustees' meeting. After that, other students, mostly graduate students at the New School for Social Research, sent a few e-mails out through various departmental listservs asking for an open meeting to discuss the faculty vote.

There were two meetings before the occupation about how to respond. Apart from the occupation, we talked about the demands we wanted to make and the things we wanted to change in the university. A lot of the discussion was about constituting some type of organization, although most of the people there had no experience organizing, and didn't really want an "organization." They were of the opinion that somehow there was-to use those terrible buzzwords-an organic and egalitarian constitution-making process that was happening at these meetings. Now of course there wasn't. And it was not egalitarian, and not really democratic in any sense of the word, and certainly not an organization.

In the brainstorming stages of the occupation... well, that was one of the issues, oddly enough, there was no real brainstorming for the occupation. In the two meetings a good amount of contention emerged, and I was clearly on one side because I didn't favor the occupation. It seemed like nothing was planned, nothing was really thought out, and it simply consisted of a bunch of people wanting to get some steam out in a very unconstructive manner -I'm sure that some people are going to be extremely pissed off that I say this, but that is basically what it was.

There was a lot of speculation and skepticism about the effectiveness of any type of action, especially since the bulk of students were going into finals. There were even some of us that had a final during the second meeting. The question of the occupation was much more on the table in the second meeting; two people even premised the invitation to the meeting with "bring your sleeping bags." Nobody did. The plan, put forward by a couple of people, was to actually stay at 65 Fifth Ave. that night, but there were only about six to eight people who were actually willing to go through with it. So myself and a couple of other people talked them out of it, and said "If you are going to do it, at least wait one more day." It was clear that there was no support, there was no outreach done, there was really nothing besides a couple of people deciding that they wanted to do an occupation. It seemed like nothing had been done, and I was very skeptical. We weren't really sure if the occupation was going to happen, even by the end of that meeting.

By 8:00pm the following day, the occupation was on its way. When we all finally sat down in the cafeteria of the New School there was a heated debate about whether we were going to form a negotiating committee and use the demands that we drafted to argue for the changes we articulated at the meetings. Through a deliberating process we were able to compile the changes we wanted to achieve, we took those, typed them, printed them in the basement, and then four of us took them to the security guard and said "these are our demands." The look on his face was quite funny. When he heard us, he replied with something like, "Demands? What?"

Later on, the cafeteria workers, hired by an outside company, Chartwells, would soon have to enter the cafeteria. Were we going to stop the Chartwells workers from coming into work and earning their pay? If we had, we may have lost the justification for the action. Ultimately, it was decided that we would stay, and although we would allow the workers to come in, we wouldn’t allow people to buy things from the cafeteria. But then, I think it was Pat Korte and a professor from CUNY that suggested that we find out if Chartwells was unionized; it turned out they were. We got into contact with someone from their union, Unite Here, and we found out that the workers would be compensated and that it was part of their union contract that they couldn’t cross a picket line, and that this action constituted a picket line. Truthfully, we kind of lucked out in that regard. If it would have been the case that they weren’t unionized and that they were paid by the hour, I am not sure how well it would have gone—certainly media would have been different. Part of the problem the entire time was that even the people who were the most excited and eager hadn’t put any thought into how it was actually going down, in fact, they purposely didn’t put any forethought into it.

PN: What do you think were the most important of the demands to the administration?

AM: For us at the New School-and this is something the RSU has been working on for a year now- the aim is to force the university to divest from any company that profits from war. Obviously the university doesn't disclose their investments, and I should say that we didn't achieve this demand, oddly enough. The creation of the Socially Responsible Investment committee is the most important of all the demands won in the occupation. It was part of our campaign to bring attention to war profiteering, specifically L-3 Communications, and how we understand what L-3 and its history symbolize in terms of the power dynamics that exist within global capitalism today. We will be working with New York City UFPJ and a variety of other organizations in the "Yes We Can: Beyond War a New Economy is Possible" campaign, established in their national assembly, to help us build a national movement to divest from war profiteers, specifically around Iraq and Afghanistan. My hope is that we can also begin to weaken companies that foster ecological destruction and devastation and companies that sell arms to Israel.

PN: Let's delve into the demand for a Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) committee. The booklet written by the Radical Student Union describes this committee as an advisory body to the Board of Trustees that is supposed to prevent unethical New School investments. Could you say more about this advisory role?

AM: The usage of the word "advisory" implies that this body would help the trustees make these decisions, and was used simply to appear more inviting to the president of the university and the board of trustees. However, in the run-up to the creation of the SRI committee at the main trustee meeting in April, we are organizing faculty and staff support so that we can push for veto power over investment decisions. We can only achieve this is if we have the capacity to shut down the university until this demand is met. Now, as unlikely as that sounds, there is a really good chance for this in the spring. The faculty is still very much in support of getting rid of President Bob Kerrey and Vice President James Murtha, and we have been making better and stronger relationships with the faculty who have gotten involved.

Moreover, in the present economic crisis the New School is specifically hard pressed to come up with reasonable fiscal solutions, therefore it needs a significant change. For any other university it's different, but for the New School, strange as it sounds, the solution lies in becoming much more radical, for example, divesting from war profiteers and investing in renewable energy manufacturing.

We will be providing this advisory role while at the same time forming something that will allow for us to build a much stronger and forceful anti-war movement. I think that there is a great possibility that we will attain veto power by April. It is extremely important to be able to vote on who the president of the university will be when Kerrey is gone, but I think it is even more important for us to gain veto power over the investment decisions and contracts that the university makes with other corporations.

PN: The informational booklet printed by the Radical Student Union describes the necessity for the SRI committee in the following paragraph,

"SRI considers both the investor's financial needs and an investment's impact on society. SRI investors encourage corporations to improve their practices on environmental, social, and governmental issues... With SRI, investors can put their money to work to build a more sustainable world while earning competitive returns both today and over time."

This seems to me to say that what the SRI committee is aiming for is a more ethical form of capitalism.

AM: Yes, of course, it's very reformist in that regard. But if you look at the rest of the way we have been framing our campaign, it is much more radical. Keep in mind that in the spring we are going to be creating another group at the New School to appeal to people who aren't going to be responsive to us when we talk about revolution, and overthrowing capitalism, and instituting a much more direct and participatory economy and society. That's why we put that in there, we want to appeal to a variety of people, but our goals-from the beginning-are much more radical.

PN: Do you mean to say that the means toward winning more radical ends have to appeal to present thought, especially in the way that leftists formulate ideas of "progress" and "transformation"? That at the present juncture it is not possible to "sell" revolution to the majority of the population, and that a leftist politics has to take steps toward that goal?

AM: Yes. For some people it may not take these steps, but for most it will.

PN: How do you formulate the interconnectedness between present demands and future goals in your politics?

AM: Look at it this way: There are steps that can be taken if we want a much more revolutionary democratic society, and I don't just mean in the political sphere but an abolition of the distinction between the political and the economic like what Marx and Engels talked about. We are in a university that has an endowment of 200 million dollars, which is not a lot for a university. In this situation there are things that we can do in the short term that will help to create the foundation for a more revolutionary economy and society that is directly democratic-or however you want to describe it.

In light of Obama's economic recovery plan, with its emphasis on the environment, the RSU thinks that the New School should do two things. One, it should invest in renewable energy production; The university should take a portion of its endowment and invest it in democratic, and maybe even worker-owned, global energy production. The other suggestion is that it should invest in cooperative credit unions. This would be a real solution in that it gives people access to credit that would be much more accountable to them than the big three. We should fight for credit unions owned by the people who have their money in them, and which are conceived as part of a long term project of building a more democratic society. Even though it would be a small achievement, it would lay the groundwork for a future economy in the here and now that would challenge the interests determining today's economy.

PN: It seems to me that the link between universities and war profiteering is epiphenomenal of a more deeply entrenched and systemic problem, the perennial reconstitution of capitalism. Thus we are faced with the task of delving deeper into the problem. In the work I've done with SDS members, theorists such as Michael Albert and David Harvey have defined the parameters of this task. Yet, I think that their analysis are insufficient, and despite their influence on students' political activity, the content of leftist politics remains unclear. You proposed creating a society in which investment could be decided on the basis of democratic deliberation, but what that sounds like is making capitalism more tolerable, thus leaving the mechanism through which agency is mediated intact. How is the fight against capital and the ostensible "democratization" of the system differentiated? Are they?

AM: As far as I am concerned -and this of course gets back to David Harvey- is that you can't, at this point, have a democratic form of capitalism. Why? Well what does this crisis signify for the future of global capitalism? What is happening today is leading us into a period of war. I believe that this is the beginning of a much larger period when you will have an unraveling of US hegemony. I think that this period we are heading into is going to be characterized by environmental crisis, and to a lesser extent continual economic crisis, but ultimately it will lead into a political crisis in which the United States will have to deal with rising powers. War mongers, Democrat or Republican, are going to be favoring these developments. That is why part of what we've been doing at the New School is fostering the seed for a new type of economy in the short term while creating an analysis of the relationship between war profiteers and financial institutions.

PN: What should the student movement do to transform the limitations of political consciousness today in order to create a better ground for a revolutionary politics in the future?

AM: I think that the student movement can play a role beyond the transformation of the university while it makes arguments about education in society. I think that it is extremely important to connect with other movements, for example, groups fighting for housing rights and against foreclosures and evictions. Some of us are already involved in this kind of work. We could revolutionize student power by taking this power and working alongside working people, people in neighborhoods against gentrification, as a means to unite people in their struggle.

Some people at the New School are going to respond to responsible investment, but of course I want more. As far as we are concerned, what reasonable person doesn't want more? And that is why having a solid analysis is so key. If we have a solid analysis we can explain why we are trying to take power in the university and move from this question to bigger issues. Who in the short term are we going to take power from? We are trying to take power from the treasurer of the board of trustees. Why? Only because he is a board of trustees member and we don't like those power dynamics? No. That is important, but we are also doing it because he is both the only the non-executive chairman at L-3 Communications, and a former managing director of Lehman Brothers. We are confronting what these corporations represent in the global power dynamic and how they keep people oppressed and in the conditions they are in through debt and loans. The IMF and the World Bank get their money from companies like Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, J.P Morgan, and Citigroup.

People have incipient knowledge of what these financial institutions represent. But do they understand the dynamics of global capital and its relationship to power? Well, it's not that detailed, and I think that this where we come in. Unfortunately, we are privileged, but we can use our privilege to the benefit of other people by connecting the dots, by explaining what foreclosures have to do with the war and suggesting how to challenge that. An occupation is only an occupation, that is, when it's not part of a project like creating a democratic university. This is how I understand what you mentioned earlier about the struggle for democracy and the fight against capitalism. We are not perfect, but I don't think we fall into a trap here. I guess you could say I am not cynical.

PN: How do you understand leadership within a movement? What is the role of political leadership?

AM: Leadership is unavoidable and necessary. It's necessary because everybody is going to have different strengths and weaknesses depending on levels of experience. Leaders are essential, as long as they don't hinder the development of a democratically based organizational structure, and as long as they don't impede in the process of others developing their own capacity to be leaders. If they do, then that is a problem. It's a problem because even though those leaders might be effective in the short run, they are going to be ineffectual in building a larger movement. Ultimately they are going to fail to foster leadership to continue the job.

In Eric Fromm's Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, he distinguishes between rational and irrational forms of authority. The example that he uses for the irrational form of authority is the bureaucrats within the democratic process who try to perpetuate their position, their authority, in what happens in the daily life of the organization. Whereas a rational form of leadership is one that, in its operation, seeks to eliminate the need for its authority. The best type of leader is one that does just that: develops leaders that eliminate the need for that initial person. Obviously, a good leader will encourage others to develop their capacities.

PN: How could the new student movement succeed where the old one did not?

AM: Well the old one did not have as well thought out of an analysis. A lot of students that I know of have a stronger analysis of capitalism and a stronger understanding of history than those that were provided in the 1960s. I think that the difference between the student movement of the 1960s and the movement of today is that the first was a generation of people waking up and realizing that the capitalism was something and that the United States was something. But today is different, those who have overcome their cynicism and are part of organizing a better society today are much more in agreement with anti-capitalist sentiment, anti-imperialist sentiment, and can articulate this in a much stronger way than students in the 1960s. An analysis alone is one thing, as part of our efforts it will lead to a much more conscious and revolutionary form of organizing. I think that this approach is potentially more effective, obviously, we have yet to see if it is or not. I think that as opposed to a lack understanding of the workings of capitalism, one of the biggest barriers today is cynicism: the feeling that very little is possible today.

PN Postscript: Student politics today prioritizes the need for the democratization of financial structures, the break from transnational corporations, and the creation of transparent decision-making processes. Even at its best- in the struggle for dual-power through local control of factories, credit unions, and institutions-the student movement's imagination is finched in by predetermined and unquestioned political boundaries. The challenging of these boundaries is often left out of the equation.

Students play a peculiar role in the recreation of social life. While they do not constitute a class in themselves, they are at a point in their development where a serious shift in thought and thus political education can take place. This raises the question: what role could students play in furthering the scope and depth of an anti-capitalist politics and how do we begin this kind of work today? |P